Scientists have progressively been discovering that the impacts of massive plastic use since the 1950s are destructive to both the environment and human health. Microplastics, for example, have recently been found to infiltrate all body systems, including the brain. PFAS have been found to lead to changes in immune and thyroid function and increased risk of some cancers.
Now, researchers at Minderoo Foundation, an Australia-based non-profit organisation, have collected data that suggest there are still substantial gaps on our knowledge of how plastic exposure affects human health. The team has created the world’s first database, available for free online, that maps 3,587 studies published between 1960 and 2022 on plastic chemical exposure to impacts on human health.
The database focuses on plastic chemicals to which consumers are commonly exposed: polymers, micro and nanoplastics, chemical additives that act as plasticisers and flame retardants, bisphenols, and per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Users can filter the scientific literature available by type of plastic chemical exposure, country, age, population type, and human health outcome.
“Given the enormous quantity of plastic materials currently in use, as well as the fact that we were unable to determine whether many of the plastic chemicals in use globally had actually been measured in living humans and evaluated for possible health impacts, we identified an urgent need to systematically map existing research,” said Louise Goodes, Plastic Health Map Project Lead at Minderoo Foundation.
The results, published and peer-reviewed in the journal Environmental International, show that many information gaps on the human health impacts of plastic, with less than 30% of the more than 1,500 chemicals mapped having been investigated for human health impacts. Moreover, many human health outcomes have not been investigated for any given chemicals class, the impact of micro and nanoplastics on human health was not investigated in any of the studies screened, few studies address substitution chemicals, and very few studies were conducted in low-income countries, where population is heavily exposed to plastic waste.
An overview of the database shows that the human health impacts most investigated are in the ‘endocrine, nutritional, or metabolic’ category, with 1205 articles overall. Of these, 369 discuss PCBs and 289 focus on PFAS. The least investigated health categories are sexual health, sleep-wake, and infectious or parasitic. As for polymers, their impact is most studied in the skin category, with 319 articles out of a total of 430, but barely investigated in any other category.
"While as authors we fully expected gaps in research, the extent of those gaps shocked us,” said Professor Sarah Dunlop, Minderoo Foundation’s Head of Plastics and Human Health. “All new plastic chemicals should be tested for safety before being introduced in consumer products, with ongoing post-introduction monitoring of their levels in human biospecimens and evaluation of health effects throughout the lives of individuals and across generations,” she argued.
The team hopes the interactive map helps build a greater understanding of the impact of plastics on human health and inform regulation changes. It is also a helpful tool for scientist looking to further research the topic, highlighting the opportunities and priorities to focus on.